Last spring, the Carnegie Corporation of New York recognized Don Michael Randel's contributions to the liberal arts by giving the University of Chicago president one of three $500,000 "academic leadership" awards. Tuesday, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, another philanthropic organization that generously supports higher education, recognized Randel in a different way: by selecting him as its next president.
The foundation announced that Randel would succeed William G. Bowen as Mellon's president in July 2006. Randel has been president of Chicago since 2000; before that, he spent 32 years as a faculty member (in musicology) and administrator at Cornell University, culminating in the provostship there.
Mellon, which with an endowment of $4.5 billion is one of the nation's largest foundations, has always included higher education and the humanities among its priorities, but its focus on academe has grown in recent years. In 2004, nearly 80 percent of the $186 million in grants it awarded went to those purposes, according to the foundation's annual report. It is that deep and broad involvement in academe and with scholarly pursuits that attracted Randel to the job, he said, and led him to decide, after what he described as the "two most difficult weeks of my life," to accept Mellon's offer.
"The Mellon Foundation is the one foundation that stands for things I have worked on all my life," Randel said in an interview Tuesday. "No foundation of anything like its size has its commitment, not just to higher education, but within higher education to graduate education and to the humanities and the arts, broadly."
Randel, whose academic specialty is the music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in Spain and France (though he has written about topics as diverse as medieval liturgical chant and Latin American pop), was editor of the Journal of the American Musicology Society, and is editor of the fourth edition of the Harvard Dictionary of Music (Harvard University Press, 2003), among other works. At Chicago, he has led a fund raising campaign that has brought in $1.3 billion toward a goal of $2 billion, sought to strengthen the humanities and arts, and bolstered the university's ties to the city whose name it bears.
Bowen said in an interview Tuesday that he believed Randel's background as a university professor and president situated him perfectly to manage Mellon -- acknowledging a bias, though, since he himself became Mellon's president in 1988 from a similar background, after years at the helm of Princeton University.
"For what Mellon does, being the president of a major university is a big plus," said Bowen. "So much of Mellon's grant making is directed to major universities, and having the kind of knowledge of leaders in various fields, especially in the humanities, is a major advantage." He added: "You know who to call for advice."
Bowen said that based on his experience, the Mellon job would give Randel "more control over his own agenda than he has at present," because "a university president does certain things because he or she chooses, but does lots of things because they come to the door."
That "sounds right," Randel said. "At Mellon you have 50 employees instead of the 12,000 employees and 14,000 students and 28,000 parents" that are constituents of Chicago's president. "There are many fewer moving parts" to the Mellon job, he surmised, and "much more opportunity, I daresay, to think about what one might like to accomplish."
Randel said he did not envision pursuing any dramatic reshaping of Mellon's agenda. "It has long been doing things that I have always wanted to see done, and I do not imagine for a moment causing it to go in some different direction," he said. "The humanities and arts are things that have been central to human life forever, and that can sometimes be lost sight of in the modern world. I can see there being particular areaswithin those broad ones that I might pursue, but broadly redefining its direction is not going to be part of it."
Bowen, who became Mellon's president in 1988, said he was retiring because he was "turning into a pumpkin" -- he will reach Mellon's mandatory retirement age of 72 this fall. Bowen said that he would continue as chairman of Ithaka Harbors, Inc., a Mellon spinoff aimed at helping the higher education industry better integrate and use information technology.
He also said he would continue to research and write on topics important to him. As Mellon's president, he has co-written major books on affirmative action, college athletics, and, most recently, the admission of students from low-income families to elite institutions.